Beyond burnout … a guide to building back better

I talk often about how life happens in cycles and not in linear straight lines.

And so it is that I find myself circling back to themes and passions that I thought I had moved beyond.

The very first e-book that I wrote when I started my blog a few years ago was entitled ‘Self Care for Women Who Care’. When I wrote that book, I was immersed in a deeply personal journey of physical healing myself. I was burnt out – not so much by the industry that I found myself in – but by the social conditioning that had led me to believe that I needed to do everything perfectly and in record time.

As I began to carefully extract myself from the career that I thought I’d be in for a lifetime – cautiously disentangling my identity from what I did and shielding myself from the perceived shock that I thought it would be met with (turns out no-one really cared) – I found myself drawn to helping other women learn to do the same.

Maybe it’s because I’m a Gemini (a natural communicator who has the ability to… how do I say this… to talk out one’s ass about any matter). Perhaps it’s because I’m a daughter of two teachers. Perhaps it’s because the part of my jobs that I was always drawn to involved me teaching and talking about feelings (my sister once found me life coaching the kitchenhand at a pub when I was studying my undergraduate degree).

Whatever it was, I felt compelled to share the lessons that I was learning. Every new discovery I made as I peeled back the layers of my stress and fatigue, felt immensely important to communicate to other women. Because somehow I felt like we were, and are, all in this together.

I saw women working in the service sectors (the teachers, doctors, lawyers, mamas, healers, humanitarians, advocates) who were literally moving mountains for causes they believed in. And yet they were doing it at the cost of their physical and mental wellbeing. Especially in the not for profit sectors, I saw women who were continually asked to undervalue themselves ‘for the cause’. Something that I’m yet to see asked of men.

I saw the manifestations of our cultural conditioning – the pervasive, insidious belief that we, as women in service, are a little ‘less than’ and therefore we must work harder to prove ourselves. If not to anyone else, then definitely to ourselves.

It’s a great mystery to me why the women with the biggest hearts and the bravest souls have the loudest inner critics of all.

And the more I started to become conscious of these patterns and beliefs in myself – the more I started to see them playing out on a macro level.

For whatever reason – and there are many – I drew away from these themes. I focused my intention on helping women – any women – to deal with stress and fatigue and find more wellbeing. I did a lot of yoga teaching. I tried a lot of different business models.

And the circle kept turning without my being aware that I would be coming back to these themes a wiser, more skilful communicator. With a powerful tribe of women supporting my spreading of this message.

And it was only when the circle completed it’s revolution – that I stepped entirely out of working within my old sector – that I realised that my instincts all those years ago – the whisperings of my soul – were right on target.

It’s a feeling that I’ve had before. The moment of clarity when you realise that a tiny little thought bubble, a feeling, a gentle internal prod some time ago has manifested. We go through the journey of learning to express those internal whisperings in an unattached way. In business, it is a process of staying committed to your message regardless of the material support that comes your way in response to the message.

And so it has been that – without my even noticing – the cogs have been turning. And the evidence has been right in front of me all along. My clients – every single of one of them – is in some type of service, or aspires to be. My email list filled with the women who are working their butts off to make this world a better place. The ladies at my workshops and retreats all expressing the desire to do something meaningful – to matter. Whether that be in the way we raise our kids, or in the projects that we manage. The boards that we serve on to the staff that we mentor. The classes that we run or the creativity we express.

And here I am – in the ovulation phase of my cycle – bursting with all the ways that I can help women of service not only make a contribution, but to maintain their wellbeing and joy in the process.

The question that drives me is this ‘if we can do all these amazing things when we are feeling undervalued, unloved and unmotivated… what could we achieve if we felt well, energized and confident?’

The first and most pressing matter I need to talk about is burnout. The beast that stalks the purposeful woman’s waking (and non-waking) hours.

Burnout isn’t something that can be healed from in a massage session or a lunch break. It takes time… and the patterns will be repeated if you don’t truly embody the changes you are being called to make. If you’re on the cusp of burnout, or are already there, here are some things I’d love you to know.

1. Being burnt out isn’t cool: despite the glorification of busy-ness, not being able to get out of bed in the morning isn’t cool, and doesn’t serve anyone. Take it from me – while a couple of months in bed might sound ideal right now – there is nothing more confronting than a woman who can ‘do it all’ not being able to take a shower. If you’re on the cusp of burnout – feeling tearful, overwhelmed, anxious and lacking joy – it may be worth reminding yourself that you have only one body – and it has to carry you through a lot of years. Taking some time out now is an investment in your future, and a timely reminder that you ARE worth it. There’s lots of reasons why you can’t take time out to deal with this now… but all of them are part of the same belief system that has gotten you here in the first place.

2. But it does offer an opportunity: In the humanitarian space, we always used to talk about the concept of ‘building back better’. And I believe that burnout provides women in service a phenomenal opportunity to change some of the beliefs, behaviours and patterns that led there in the first place. It’s like a personal development course on steroids – there’s nowhere to hide since you can’t pretend your busy anymore. The earthquake of burnout provides a rare opportunity to change things – to learn things – to heal things. The challenge is to see those opportunities when they come knocking. It might be bloody hard to see now, but burnout is a big fat wake up call – and the challenge – should you wish to accept – is to work through all the sh*t so that you come out the other side more confident, wiser and with crystal clear intentions.

3. Know thyself: I won’t tell you to apply your own oxygen mask first because, to be fair, I’ve been told that analogy a hundred times and I guarantee you that if you are an empathetic woman you will always, always, put your kids’ mask on first. The purposeful woman’s greatest gift is knowing herself and her limits – and painstakingly constructing healthy boundaries to help reserve her life force for the passions and projects she is here to do. I know how many clients I can have at any one time. I know exactly how many nights of interrupted sleep will lead me to have a blow out with my husband. I know which times of the month I’m more anxious. I know how much exercise I need. I know that I can’t watch the news without being upset. I know my values. I know my priorities. And all of this knowing allows me to give to others – but from a place of feeling whole within myself. Investing in coaching or help to enable you learn these limits is a preventive measure against burnout – as well as a worthwhile investment in building confidence and esteem in the long run. Asking for help does not make you weak – it makes you an inspiring leader that understands that we are all connected and that opening up and being vulnerable is one of your greatest gifts.

4.  Don’t be the sprinkler: purposeful women are excellent at investing large amounts of emotional energy in unimportant matters. When your energy gets taken away through burnout, you become very very aware of just how damaging – and also inefficient – this way of working is. Don’t be a sprinkler – spraying energy around and hoping that some of it sticks in the right way to make you feel good about yourself. Instead, cultivate inner resources through self compassion, meditation, self care and hearty laughter – and reserve it for the things that align with your values. This involves letting go of the woman that you thought that you’d be and the form that you believe you should be channelling your gifts. You may not, in fact, be here to build wells in Africa. Instead, your unique chemistry of experience, passions, soul-yearnings and personality might be suited to contributing in a different form. A form that is far, far closer to home. Imagine the impact that you would have on the people in your immediate vicinity – your family, your community, your friends – if you felt confident, loveable and energized. You could hold their pain. You could give them unconditional love. You could be the alchemist that helps them turn their sorrow into hope. This doesn’t mean that you don’t give a sh*t about what’s happening in Syria nor that you don’t muck in and help out when the world needs it (e.g. by actively taking steps to mitigate climate change). It means that you understand that the biggest contribution you can make relies on you stepping into YOUR unique power and gifts…. and that your ability to transform from that place is a quantum leap above your capacities when you are paddling a boat upstream.

If you are in this place – the most compassionate mama in me is sending you the biggest hugs. You are not alone – and the feelings you feel are very real, very human, and very very valid. Know that you don’t deserve this, and you didn’t ask to get here. Know that in a few months or years from now this will all make sense. Know that you are wonderful, and loveable and unique and glorious. Just the way you are. Know that the pain will pass, and you will heal. And know that from this place, one day you will see that this was all part of you working out who you are and what you’re here to do.

You’ve got this.

M xo

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